TOPICS : ‘Killing Fields’ trials set to roll

After a complicated and sometimes fraught process of establishment lasting over two years, the international tribunal into the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge may commence trials as early as September. Kaing Guek Eav , former head of the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous torture and detention centre, Tuol Sleng, will be the first of the five senior leaders of the former Maoist group, currently in custody, to stand trial.

The consensus is that as day-to-day head of the Tuol Sleng facility Duch’s culpability is clear, making his a fairly open-and-shut case. Although tribunal staff caution it is hard to predict time frames, Duch’s trial is expected to run through the remainder of 2008 and possibly into early 2009. The tribunal will then try the remaining four: Noun Chea or ‘Brother No 2’ as he was known in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, former Democratic Kampuchea head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Leng Sary, and his wife Leng Thirith, the regime’s minister of social action.

“Although nothing has been decided it seems more likely they will be tried as a group,” said tribunal public affairs chief Helen Jarvis. “They are being charged with policy level crimes they are all accused of being involved in.” All five are currently in detention on of charges war crimes and crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the death by starvation, torture and murder of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule over the country between 1975 and early 1979. The start of trials will go a long way to defusing ongoing criticisms particularly from Cambodians that the tribunal is too slow and unnecessarily bureaucratic. Such criticisms have increased pressure on the tribunal to get the trials underway at the same time ensuring a fair and impartial process and being careful not to characterise the five defendants’ exercise of their right to appeal .

“The lawyers talk about the international standard,” said Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Centre in Phnom Penh, a local NGO dedicated to studying and documenting the Khmer Rouge’s three and a half year rule. “You might apply this in Bosnia where there is hostility from the local population and difficulty in accessing the accused. But here it is different. There is support from local people. You have all the evidence.”“This is not about the UN’s reputation. It is about the million of lives lost. It is about people wanting justice after 30 years.” “In comparison with other [war crimes] courts, by any measure we are making great progress,” maintained Jarvis. “If anything, there is a certain picture of doom being painted from outside but I don’t feel that from inside.”

The tribunal comprises local and international judges and mainly uses Cambodia’s underdeveloped system of civil law. “This is one reason everything takes so long,” said Rupert Skilbeck, head of the tribunal’s Defence Support Section. “There is no clear legal process in Cambodia even for relatively simple cases, let alone for complex ones [like this].” - IPS